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Pop's Off On Unlocking The Truth

As we dig into the Kalvin Michael Smith case, what seems at first like a family-agonistes true-crime trope builds cleverly to a key contrast.

My notes for the second episode of Unlocking The Truth contain the following impatient scribble: "free Kalvin protest. zz. get to investigation pls." That response is to footage of one of the show's imprisoned subjects' fathers, Gus Dark, leading a small rally in support of his son, Kalvin Michael Smith, and it's uncharitable for sure, but my interest in the titular truth of the cases Ryan Ferguson and Eva Nagao are re-investigating is primarily in the facts of said cases. The emotional truths at each case's core, about the families...it's not that it's per se less compelling. It's that I've watched thousands of hours of 20/20 and 48 Hrs and Disappeared and and and, and it's almost not possible at this point to present a family member's pain and conflict in a way that tells us anything about, well, anything. You see enough bereaved and/or avenging sisters staring into the middle distance as a marker for a Keith Morrison voice-over, they all stop registering.

I think Unlocking The Truth knows that, though, and I think Episode 2 is constructed to lean into that human-interest fatigue; the end result is to point up the contrast between the reactions of the subjects' fathers. The first dad we meet is actually Michael Politte's, Ed, whom we left off the premiere wondering about as a suspect. We're told that he has an alibi, of sorts, but that it wasn't checked, and we meet his next (now ex-) wife, who informs Ryan and Eva that, among other things, Ed and Michael are now estranged thanks to a court filing Ed "forgot" to take care of" -- and that Michael vowed to get Ed for setting him up. Then it's off to meet with Ed, whose timeline of the estrangement seems to differ from his ex's version, and the estrangement itself doesn't sit right with the team, particularly when Ed claims that it's he who decided he "couldn't handle" Michael's anger and cut him off. His son. Who is in jail, according to Ed, because the cops weren't able to pin it on Ed. Ed, by the way, has just claimed that a cop told him this in so many words, and has underlined it with a teary, rambling account of trying to provoke that cop into hitting him. Ryan and Eva:

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Apparently Ed's righteous rage on his son's behalf is supposed to prove that he loves Michael, would never set him up in that manner, and wants to see justice done. All Eva gets from it is that Ed has difficulty controlling his anger, which, word. All I got from it is how much Ed evidently wants others to admire his fortitude in bearing up under this burden, and his willingness to fight the law. It's all about him, his emotions, his struggle with this injustice, one which he compounded -- possibly purposefully -- by biffing a filing deadline and then huffily refusing to turn the other cheek to his son's understandable frustration.

Compare this hinky-at-best, guilty-at-worst narcissism to Gus Dark, whose son has done even more time than Ed's, based primarily on a racist detective's championing irrelevant Crimestoppers tips over eyewitness testimony and an existing restraining order that strongly suggested another, paler suspect. We step away from the rundown of Kalvin Michael Smith's case to meet Gus, but despite my initial irritation, it pays off, not least with Ryan struggling with his own emotions and gratitude for his own family's support. Then Michael (as Smith's family and friends call him) phones from prison, and Gus's reaction is everything -- and about everything -- Ed Politte's isn't: joy in his son's friendship;

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pride in Michael's embrace of the Lord;

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pain at Michael's pain. Note the difference in the team's reaction, too.

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You see some discomfort there, at Gus's vulnerability, or possibly at the hand-in-hand casual relationship both men have with God. It pings something in Ryan, for sure. But there is no trace of the "uh...huh?" response we saw in their conversation with Ed. Gus's breakdown, and struggle to conceal it from Michael over the phone, is awkward because it's genuine. Ed's is awkward because it's a performance, of a story about Ed. And it took seeing both, and spending time with both, in the lane usually driven by self-important B-roll of dead cornstalks in most true-crime shows; each father's experience informed the other's for the viewer.

Well played, UTT. Well played.

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